Relational Stress in the Workplace

Denise Klitsie Work Illustration

It’s 3 a.m. The deadline is fast approaching and I am starting to panic. I can’t seem to focus. My plate is overflowing with other tasks, and I feel like I’m perpetually running on empty. What I really want to do is to tell them I can’t do this. I’m stressed!

Such was the turmoil I experienced a week before this article was due. Faced with limited resources and a hard deadline, feelings of inadequacy began to choke me, making me feel incapacitated. I wanted to renege on my commitment and escape, but I was worried about how others would then view me. These fears revealed my underlying negative self-statements: I’m a disappointment, I’m not good enough, I’m a failure. These were the roots of my relational stress.

While we may experience day-to-day stress that comes from a heavy workload, such stress is mostly due to the pressure of time. It is a stress that we can resolve with our own effort and skills, simply by completing the task. However, as I look back on my work experiences, the majority of my stress came from real or potential relational conflict. Even with the writing of this article, more of my stress came from my fears about what others would think of me. As Christian psychologist Archibald Hart notes, “I would guess that 95 percent of all stress originates with other people.” Whether it is self-imposed or other-imposed, relational stress feels pervasive, intimidating, and often debilitating.

We are especially vulnerable to relational conflict in the workplace because, for many of us, our identity is tied to our work. Even with a healthy understanding of vocational calling, there is an evaluative component to our work that is, for the most part, inescapable. Our accomplishments become a measure of our success and are often perceived as a direct reflection of who we are. Hence, we can become entangled in a vicious cycle of pursuing more accomplishments to build our sense of self and, in turn, protecting that reputation by seeking more accomplishments. Therefore, when our work is viewed negatively, we often perceive this as a direct threat to our identity.

I am part of a growing community of therapists who practice an integrative model called Restoration Therapy. Using this model, I conceptualize stress within a framework of understanding emotional danger. Consider when we are faced with physical danger. Our brain’s limbic system is activated, and we have an automatic fight, flight, or freeze response. Similarly, when we feel a threat to our identity or to our sense of safety and trust, our brain registers this as an emotional threat and responds automatically by blaming, shaming, con- trolling, or escaping. Such negative coping behaviors create friction in relationships. Thus, any ensuing relational conflict, as well as the inability to resolve it, gives us stress.

Consider a threat to our hard-earned reputation or accomplishments. Perhaps our accomplishments are not acknowledged, our efforts are not appreciated, or our ideas are dismissed. Alternatively, we may feel powerless regarding job-related decisions or an excessive workload. There may be times when coworkers cannot be trusted, such as when they take credit for our work or we are unfairly blamed for their mistakes. At other times, the system itself can feel unjust, such as when there is favoritism, salary discrepancies, unfairness over pro- motions, or other types of discrimination.

Blaming is a fight response to an emotional threat. When we feel disrespected, unappreciated, unheard, or dismissed, blaming someone else shields us from having to take responsibility or having our reputation tarnished. When we feel like we don’t measure up, we find fault with others in an effort to deflect scrutiny. Hence, anger is a common blame response. Likewise, defensiveness and passive-aggressive behaviors are variations of blaming.

In a shame response, the emotional threat can cause us to point the finger inward, and our insecurities rise to the surface. Feeling like we are not good enough may keep us from addressing the overload with our supervisors. Comparison envy can fuel our stress as we struggle with feeling incompetent, which can be expressed through internalizing, complaining, feeling sorry for ourselves, or playing the victim, any of which can gradually lead to depression. We might fear that someone will see past our façade, prodding us to overcompensate for our insecurities and work even harder to shore up our reputation. This can quickly lead to burnout.

When we turn to controlling behaviors, it is often in reaction to feeling vulnerable or powerless. We try to manipulate people or situations to gain our desired outcome. If the system or coworkers are not trustworthy, we feel we have no choice but to protect ourselves and get what we need. And when those relational dynamics are complicated by power dynamics, we often feel defensive and powerless. We can become fiercely protective of our own tasks because it feels like those are the only things over which we have control. When we delegate, we may criticize others for their subpar performance. Unfortunately, our criticalness may lead to a belief that others cannot do the task as well, so we may cease to delegate altogether. Such perfectionism can increase our sense of hopelessness because no one can measure up to our standard of excellence, not even ourselves.

Alternatively, we may take flight and veer toward escape. We may withdraw from coworkers, the situation, or work in general, and start shutting down. If we cannot trust the system to take care of us, it feels futile to work hard. While the burden of unfinished tasks weighs on our shoulders, we find our- selves procrastinating through the myriad of distractions at our fingertips. Feeling hopeless, powerless, and unmotivated may decrease our ability to concentrate, so we may take longer to complete tasks or not do them altogether.

Whether we blame, shame, control, escape, or do a combination of these, all such coping behaviors will likely increase relational conflicts at work, which will only increase our stress.

In much of the psychological literature, job burnout is defined as “a gradual process of loss in which the mismatch between the needs of the person and the demands of the job grows ever greater.” Initially, this mismatch can make us feel like the work- load is too much, thereby causing stress. However, compounded stress can lead to a deeper state of feeling like we ourselves are not enough. This feeling of burnout is the depletion of energy, motivation, care, or hope to the point where we feel like there is nothing left to give. My colleagues Cameron Lee and Kurt Fredrickson have written, “Emotional exhaustion is common to people in the helping professions, who often give and give and give without caring adequately for their own personal needs,” and this can include pastors, missionaries, and therapists.

Often, emotional depletion arises from the pain of relational stress. When we feel like we are not affirmed or appreciated, when it feels like no one has our back or no one is looking out for us, when we feel hopeless or powerless, when we feel like we are not enough—these are the painful feelings that can turn stress into burnout.

If we want to learn to reduce workplace stress by improving relational conflict, we must begin by reclaiming our true identity. For many of us, significant relational wounds have given voice to negative self-statements that have damaged our identity. For example, when others have ignored what we say, we can feel unheard and dismissed, which can reinforce the notion that we are not worth listening to. Hence, we slowly begin to believe the lie that we are worthless. And with enough repetitive negative experiences, these lies can warp our identity. We need to break the hold of such lies and restore our true identity. Henri Nouwen writes this:

Your true identity is as a child of God. This is the identity you have to accept. . . It might take a great deal of time and discipline to fully reconnect your deep, hidden self and your public self, which is known, loved, and accepted but also criticized by the world. Gradually, though, you will begin feeling more connected and become more fully who you truly are—a child of God. There lies your real freedom.

As a Restoration Therapist, I believe in each individual’s capacity to reclaim his or her true identity by identifying truths and growing into those truths. Our truths generally come from three sources: God, trusted others, and the self. As an example of God as our source of truth, Ephesians 2:10 (NLT) says, “We are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” We are his precious daughters or sons whom he honors and loves (Isa 43:4). Another source of truth is trusted others, who have shown us their love and their trustworthiness over time. Out of their love for us, they are able to speak truth into our hearts. However, of the three sources, the truths that the self speaks and believes in appear to be the most trans- forming. Ultimately, we are the ones that have to choose to believe such truths and ascribe them to ourselves with the aim of restoring our identity and sense of safety.

Reclaiming our true identity enables us to live as the new self. As stated in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Our old patterns of believing the lies and coping negatively are attached to our old self. Recognizing our true identity will empower us to put on our new selves, through which we can make better choices as an act of being made new in the attitude of our minds (Eph 4:22–24).

Our ability to see ourselves rightly is critical because it informs the way we interact with others. For example, we might have an internal message that our supervisor never listens to us. This may actually be true or it might be that the supervisor does not agree with us on a certain issue. Disagreement and not listening are two different experiences. When we lean into our truths and slow ourselves down enough, we might realize that our supervisor indeed listens to what we have to say. However, the pain of disagreement or feeling unheard can have us jump to the conclusion that we are never listened to at work, which will then prompt our negative coping behaviors.

Reclaiming our true identity allows us to ground ourselves in our truths. In this case, we can remind ourselves that we are valued, respected, and heard. We can approach our supervisor with a desire to engage respectfully, listen openly, and communicate calmly. Hence, even if our supervisor disagrees with our idea, we can remain strong in our true identity and choose not to react negatively.

When we find work relationships to be challenging, this may be an indication that we need to make an overall assessment of our fit—the fit of our skills to the work, the fit of our personality with our coworkers or supervisor, or a reevaluation of our calling. More often, however, challenging relation- ships can provide us with the opportunity to take a learning posture. Rather than succumbing to our negative coping behaviors, we can choose to take healthier and more nurturing actions.

Seek collaboration. If your tendency is to blame others, ask yourself how you can take responsibility for your own actions, which will help increase your sense of ownership. Taking ownership will help put you in a posture of collaborating and nurturing others.

Seek assessment. If your find yourself struggling with shame, work toward a more healthy self-appraisal. Remind yourself that this is not about how you perform; this is about who you are. Identify your gifts and strengths and build confidence around the person God has created you to be. Consider how your skills can be better used. Lean into your skills so that your work is a natural overflow of your identity.

Seek mentorship. Rather than taking control, aim to become more vulnerable. Seek mentorship from someone you respect. Give them permission to say the hard things. You will benefit from having someone speak into your life to rebuke, affirm, challenge, and encourage.

Seek connection. If you find yourself having the tendency to withdraw, isolate, or escape, then seek connection. Find a trusted friend who can hold you accountable, particularly to the more harmful modes of escape. Make efforts to stay connected emotionally. Even when you feel overwhelmed with tasks, connecting with others will help to recharge your batteries.

The journey of writing this article was a reminder of the tension between my old self and new self. My old self was weighed down by others’ expectations and my own insecurities. My new self, however, sought to firmly grasp the truth of who I am: I am appreciated, I am good enough, and I am full of inherent worth. I leaned into my truths and chose to take nurturing actions. Rather than blaming others or internalizing shame, I took responsibility and owned my commitments. I made a healthy assessment of my time and skills and asked trusted mentors for their guidance. And despite my full schedule, I carved out time to spend with my family and peers, whose words of encouragement and support recharged my spirit. All of these actions helped to relieve my stress and enabled me to focus on this task. We are called to live as the new self in Christ, and our restored identity can help us experience increased freedom from stress.

1. Archibald Hart, Adrenaline and Stress (W Pub Group, 1991), 105.
2. Terry D. Hargrave and Franz Pfitzer, Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy (Routledge, 2011).
3. Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, The Truth about Burnout (Jossey-Bass, 2000), 24.
4. Cameron Lee and Kurt Fredrickson, That Their Work Will Be a Joy: Understanding and Coping with the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Cascade, 2012), 40.
5. Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love (Doubleday, 1998), 70-71.
6. To read more about this, see Terry Hargrave and Sharon Hargrave, “Restoring Identity” in FULLER magazine Issue #6, 40–43.
7. The training to be a therapist has an embedded system of live supervision, which invites regular monitoring of therapeutic skills as well as constructive feedback. I think other helping professions could benefit from such a system to normalize the experience of seeking and receiving feedback.
8. Much gratitude to Sharon Hargrave and Cameron Lee for their insightful feedback.